Want to see presidents stump in Cincinnati?

Posted at 8:00 AM, Dec 17, 2015

CINCINNATI -- Maybe they’ll shovel a spoonful of chili in their mouths or grab a bowl of Cincinnati’s finest ice cream. They might be spotted at the fountains outside Union Center Terminal or stumping on the grounds of the University of Cincinnati.

Whatever Cincinnati destinations they choose, 2016 is certain to be a busy year for Cincinnati’s iconic restaurants, museums, colleges and event centers.

Presidential candidates, including Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Hillary Clinton, have been spotted around town already this year and the Ohio primary is still a month away. The Queen City will welcome yet another visitor to town Friday when former President Bill Clinton stops by the Clifton Cultural Arts Center to stump for his wife during a 'get out the vote' rally. 

It's not just the hot dogs topped with chili, onion and cheese that Clinton, or any other presidential campaign, will stop in town for.

Candidates will court Cincinnati-area voters here as well as wealthy donors living in areas such as Indian Hill or Hyde Park, according to Christopher Kelly, a political science professor at Miami University. They'll get enough cash to keep visiting Hamilton County until next November.  

Bill Clinton, for example, will also host a fundraiser at the Contemporary Art Center earlier in the day. 

“It’s more than coming for photo opportunities and campaigning,” Kelley said of Hamilton County. “They come a lot, and I bet most of the visits are through Indian Hill, which gives a ton of money to both campaigns. For Democrats and Republicans alike, that’s going to be a stop this summer.”

The Indian Hill zip code – 45243 – gave more money to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign than nearly any other area in the country, said Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou.

“Republicans who are running recognize the importance of getting financial support from the community,” Triantafilou said. “It’s an important center for candidates.”

Lisa Hopkins, the manager of the National Exemplar in neighboring Mariemont, has taken note. The restaurant set up a spot for Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson to film a Fox News spot last month during his visit to Cincinnati.

She was also told during Carson’s stop that other presidential candidate visits to the restaurant might be forthcoming within the next six months.

“The location, it’s pretty central,” Hopkins said of the National Exemplar’s attractiveness to candidates. “It’s especially close to the 45243 zip code.”

Look to history to guess where else candidates might stop for public appearances or after they’ve locked down a big check from local donors. Through election years, future presidents have honored Cincinnati favorites like Graeter’s Ice Cream, Skyline Chili, and Montgomery Inn with campaign stops.

Union Terminal was the stage for President George W. Bush’s call to start a war in 2002. The center has hosted a presidential candidate election cycle since. 

The visits usually mean sleepless nights for Steve Terheiden, who oversees facility operations for the museum and typically finds out a politician is coming to stump just a few days before their visit. When President Bush visited, he had to get the 504,000-square-feet-building ready in less than five days.

“They were the busiest days I’ve ever worked through,” Terheiden said. “During that period of time, you’re constantly walking and answering questions.”

The all-nighters paid off. Since Bush’s visit, Union Terminal has hosted the country’s most powerful politicians: President Barack Obama, John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and First Lady Laura Bush.

“They must like something,” Terheiden said of the Museum Center. “It’s a national historic landmark. You bring politicians in here and I’m thinking it’s a pretty good backdrop for what they’re trying to do. It’s very colorful. It’s very vibrant (and) close to the highway. There’s a great façade out in front of the building.”

He still keeps photos of him and his staff when Biden visited in 2008. There’s one in his file that sticks out to him. It’s of Cincinnati firefighter Daryl Gordon, who worked security during that visit, shaking hands with Biden. 54-year-old Gordon died in March while fighting a fire.

“Little things like that come to mind,” Terheiden said of moments he remembers with the visitors he’s hosted.

Parts of Union Terminal will close this July for a $21 million renovation so the museum will probably be unable to host any campaign stops after June for the first time in more than a decade.

In fact, three of Cincinnati’s most frequented campaign stops will be closed this summer. Music Hall will shut down in June for renovations and Memorial Hall won’t reopen until the fall after a remodel.

That’s not enough to keep politicians from coming to the city next year. And other venues are more than happy to play host.

The University of Cincinnati, which hosted President Barack Obama just days before he won both the 2008 and 2012 elections, is preparing university fact sheets to send to presidential campaigns in hopes of luring them to the college campus in 2016.

“We’re hopeful -- it’s a great thing for us to have the opportunity,” said Greg Vehr, the university’s spokesman. “I think it speaks to the importance of the institution.”

Steve Beltsos won’t send out pitches to campaigns asking candidates to visit next year. Politicians have been showing up to talk to customers at his family-owned, West Side chili parlor since he was a kid.

It all started in the 1960s, a few years after Price Hill Chili opened, when Cincinnati City Council candidates began stopping by to talk with voters while they took in a meal. Now it’s become election season stomping grounds for Ohio governors and city mayors. Beltsos’ daughter, now 24, handed Vice President Dick Cheney a bowl of chili a decade ago, during a 2004 visit. Cheney later sent a letter, now framed and hung on Price Hill’s wall, calling that chili “delicious.”

Cheney’s was the biggest name the restaurant has ever hosted, Beltsos said. He hasn’t heard of plans yet for anyone to stop for a bowl on the campaign trail next year.  

“If they want to bring them, that’s fine,” he said with a shrug.

But Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Beltsos is quick to add, is running for president and he’s already visited Price Hill Chili – twice.